While a gunman’s bullets took 11 lives at the Tree of Life building and shattered those of countless others, the scope of the horror that Oct. 27 morning awoke a collective response among Pittsburgh’s Jewish communal organizations that might become a model for how other communities deal with tragedy.
As emergency responders raced to the Squirrel Hill synagogue in those first few minutes, news of the attack quickly spread.
“We received information about the shooting as the police were on their way to the synagogue,” said Jordan Golin, president and CEO of Jewish Family and Community Services.
According to Adam Hertzman, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s director of marketing, Brad Orsini, the Federation’s director of security, was on the scene at Tree of Life “five minutes after police were called.” Orsini, who spent 28 years at the FBI prior to working for the Federation, was determining “whether this was a lone attacker and whether the other community organizations were safe.”
While Orsini assessed threats, Suzanne Schreiber, a Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha member, received several calls within moments of each other from fellow congregants seeking details on what happened. Schreiber and her husband, Brian Schreiber, who serves as president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, were out of town.
Just after 10 a.m., Brian Schreiber received a call from Tree of Life’s president requesting a place for congregants to gather. Immediately, Schreiber directed parties to the JCC. He then called Jason Kunzman, the center’s chief program officer, and alerted senior staff.
By 10:30 a.m., “people began to descend on site,” Schreiber said. “Very quickly we created a family support center that ultimately, once the authorities moved on scene,” transitioned “into the level of what we would call a FBI crisis center.”
Once Levinson A was identified as an operational center and family space, “we were there shortly afterwards. This included me, [Chief Operating Officer] Dana [Gold], several of our staff, and some additional therapists that we had reached out to,” said Golin. These professionals were tasked with being “there with families to find out if loved ones were still alive.”
At that point, “a number of Jewish Federation staff headed to the JCC to set up shop,” said Hertzman.
“People were arriving as families were arriving on scene,” said Schreiber, who returned to the center around 1 p.m. Among those gathering included the Salvation Army, Red Cross, FBI and law enforcement. “All of those services descended upon us very quickly.”
Hertzman described the efforts of the Federation, JCC and JFCS as a seamless collaboration.
There was “talking to the media, setting up a grief counseling center for people who didn’t know what was happening with their loved ones and serving as a conduit between the police, FBI and those families, because sadly it was a crime scene and it took a long time to inform the families about their loved ones,” said Hertzman.
While the Federation acted as intermediary, food started arriving. There were packaged items and freshly prepared options — some of the deliveries were marked vegetarian; others read “kosher.”
“I think the most important thing that we needed to do at that point was provide any level of comfort for the families we could,” said Schreiber.
Despite the challenge of operating in a “semi-lockdown” state, the JCC quietly exited those who were in the building for purposes other than those relating to the Tree of Life attack. With similar concerns in mind, a decision was made, for “the dignity” of families and victims, to halt “normal operations.” The JCC did not resume regularly scheduled activities until Monday, Oct. 29.
Throughout the first day, the Federation kept local Jewish organizations “up to date” and answered “questions from national organizations,” said Hertzman.
Saturday afternoon and evening, the FBI issued status updates at the JCC. In order to provide as much privacy and respect as possible, a wing of the building’s third floor, which included at least a dozen classrooms, was sectioned off for families of the victims.
But even before the FBI began meeting with families, the JCC had to provide a “cultural competence on Jewish customs and the way Jews mourn,” said Schreiber, in addition to explaining how all of the different communal organizations work together. “We had to do a lot of definitions and education.”
JFCS staff and representatives remained onsite throughout the day and into the evening.
“We left, along with most of the families, shortly after the medical examiner did her presentation about how the evening was going to proceed, with regards to identification of the victims [and] bringing families to the medical examiner’s office,” said Golin.
Schreiber said personnel were at the JCC “until the last family member was notified, and that must have been close to 11 that night.”
The organizational collaboration was rooted in bonds going back decades, said leaders.
Schreiber and Golin have worked together on programs and services, such as those geared for seniors, for two decades, much in the same way Golin and Jeffrey Finkelstein, Federation’s president and CEO, have cooperated on communal initiatives since the early 2000s. In addition, Schreiber and Finkelstein have a professional relationship stretching back more than 20 years, as both were Jewish communal professionals in Baltimore prior to working in Pittsburgh.
From the beginning of the crisis, “we were really able to build on pre-existing relationships as a trusting presence to be able to help,” said Golin. “Our community has placed strong emphases on relationships, collaborations and partnerships.”
“We built an infrastructure of trust and action that allowed them to do their work as quickly and seamlessly without interruption,” echoed Schreiber. From what the FBI told him, “that does not happen in every situation.”
“The immediate response to this tragedy could not have happened without the amazing collaboration among the Jewish Federation, JCC and JFCS, and many other agencies,” he said. “We have built these relationships over years, so we didn’t even need to think to work together in a moment of crisis.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.